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Straddling the Continental Divide

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

There’s no denying the therapeutic value of travel, and most of us tend to be drawn to
various locales by the quality of their sunsets, or the number of fish in their lakes.
Sometimes lost in the glow of a gorgeous sunrise, though, is the amount of knowledge we
tend to pick up in these journeys. Did you know, for example, that a moose can swim at a
steady 6 mph … or that a bear can run as fast as 35 mph? I picked up these nuggets of
wisdom during a recent trip to Glacier National Park — where I also learned that the park
is not named for its glaciers, but for the effect that glaciers had on the landscape during
the last major Ice Age, which enveloped about a third of the planet (and 97 percent of
Canada) before ending about 10,000 years ago. Yes, the park does have glaciers, but they
are rapidly melting away — down from 150 in 1850 to only 26 today. “The retreat of
glaciers from 1850 to the mid-1900s was likely a response to the end of the ‘Little Ice
Age,’ a cold period lasting several hundred years,” said Dr. Daniel B. Fagre, of the USGS
Science Center. “However, our region has since warmed more than expected from the recovery
of the Little Ice Age — probably due to human influences on the climate. Glaciers have
been on this mountain landscape for at least 7,000 years, but are likely to disappear in
the next 26 years.” These massive Ice Age glaciers worked like Mother Nature’s bulldozers,
creeping slowly down from the higher altitudes, grinding away anything that lay in their
path. They would indiscriminately carve away both sides of a mountain — leaving a narrow
ridge called an arete, such as the Garden Wall that divides Many Glacier Valley from
McDonald Valley — or three sides, creating a horn, a pyramid or tooth-like spire like
Reynolds Mountain. They relentlessly scoured out wide U-shaped valleys that now contain
McDonald and Saint Mary Lakes, and left giant ice-cream-scoop depressions in the earth
called cirques that also filled and became lakes (there are 762 lakes in the park, only 131
named). Today’s youthful glaciers, however, survive only in the highest and coldest
locations and have little effect on the shape of the peaks and valleys that inspire
open-mouthed gasps from today’s visitors. Even though small by Ice Age standards, the 37
glaciers that remain are still the largest collection of glaciers in Montana. The havoc
that the old Ice Age glaciers wreaked on this mountainous terrain, especially evident along
the Going-to-the-Sun Road, has provided some of the most dramatic mountain panoramas
anywhere, attracting nearly two million visitors each year to this 40-mile-wide,
50-mile-long national park. Much of the park reaches high enough to snag passing clouds
(there are 43 peaks that jut higher than 9,000 feet, with the highest, Mount Cleveland, at
10,466 feet), and the Continental Divide follows these ridge tops through the park,
segregating the park’s rainfall and snowmelt into three different drainage systems. A
raindrop that falls within a bear paw print on Triple Divide Peak could find its way headed
to the Columbia River that empties into the Pacific Ocean to the west … or the
Mississippi River that flows into the Gulf of Mexico to the southeast … or even to Hudson
Bay and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean to the northeast. This remote, rugged, protected
mountain and valley terrain has also benefited wildlife populations. It is one of the few
places in North America where all the native carnivores still survive — and thrive. Black
bears are commonly seen, while Grizzly bears forage on grassy slopes, along streams, and in
huckleberry patches. Wolf packs range throughout the park, and mountain lions hunt deer and
elk at lower elevations. The very presence of these predators indicates a healthy habitat,
with abundant prey, and tolerant humans. The 63 species of mammals, more than 272 species
of birds and a diverse plant life found in the park make up one of the largest intact
ecosystems in the lower 48 states. Touring the Park The Apgar Campground,
a short walk from the Apgar Village complex (which consists of a visitor center,
restaurants, shops, and services just inside the west entrance), provides a good base camp
for exploring the park, with plenty of campsites to fit the largest rigs. From here, you
can take several Red Bus Tours (1930’s buses rebuilt in 2001 to run on propane), which
offer different routes and various destinations, an informative driver/guide, convenient
departure times — and elimination of the need to find parking. You can drive the
Going-to-the-Sun Road, the only road that crosses the park, in your dinghy, but only the
smallest RVs are allowed on it (measuring no more than 21 feet long and 8 feet wide,
including mirrors). This 50-mile-long road, indisputably one of the most dramatic and
scenic drives in the country, if not the world, starts along the eastern shore of
10-mile-long, one-mile-wide Lake McDonald (you can rent a canoe to explore the lake at
Apgar Village). Look for moose at the upper end of the lake and along McDonald Creek in
early morning. In fact, early morning and late afternoon are the best times to not only
spot wildlife, but also to see the mountains and valleys in the best and most dramatic
light. The Trail of the Cedars Nature Trail, originating from Avalanche Creek Campground a
few miles past the end of the lake, winds through giant cedars, across a moist forest floor
and among lots of ferns — making this level, 0.7-mile paved-and-boardwalk loop one of the
park’s most popular hikes. At about the halfway point on the loop, Avalanche Trail branches
off for a two-mile hike to Avalanche Lake, a dramatic glacier-carved cirque framed by high
steep mountains. From here on, the road climbs steadily up the side of the mountain, makes
a U-turn around The Loop (from which you have a great view of 8,987-foot Heavens Peak),
then narrows and hugs the cliffs — or rather, is dug out of the cliffs — with precipitous
drop-offs into McDonald Valley. Stop at every viewpoint you come to: They all present a
different view of the towering peaks and deep valleys, and it’s easier to stop on the way
up — with the pull-offs and views on the right side of the road — than on the way down.
From The Loop, the road follows the Garden Wall on the left, whose ridge-top the
Continental Divide follows to Logan Pass. A broad, sheet-like curtain of water cascades
down a face of the wall (appropriately called the Weeping Wall) in spring and early summer
and floods across the road. Unless you get there early, forget about finding a parking
place at the viewpoint/parking area just before reaching Logan Pass — spectacular (and
popular) views stretch across the glaciated valley to McDonald Creek 3,000 feet below, and
up to the high mountains along the western side of the Divide. Bighorn sheep and mountain
goats enjoy hanging out here, remarkably tolerant of the human presence; just keep in mind
that, though they appear docile and will tolerate stalking photographers, these are wild
animals and should not be approached too closely. Logan Pass Plan to
arrive at the 6,646-foot-high Logan Pass visitor center early in the day; by midday, the
parking lots fill up and you can wait a half hour or more for a spot — if you could find a
place to wait. From the visitor center, we hiked the 1-1/2-mile-long Hidden Lake Nature
Trail through alpine meadows scattered with wildflowers: yellow and magenta paintbrush,
blue lupine, white daisies, and yellow glacier lilies. Waterfalls and creeks tumbled down
the mountain slopes, flowed over rocky ledges and across the trail. Several mountain goats
grazed along the trail, and marmots busily rooted in the moss while bighorn sheep watched
us from the higher slopes. From the overlook on top of the Continental Divide, you can not
only look down onto Hidden Lake, but also identify the surrounding cirques, aretes, and
horns. Continue over Logan Pass and drive another 18 miles, much of it along Saint Mary
Lake, to the Saint Mary entrance at the end of the scenic road. There is a pull-off with a
good view of Jackson Glacier just before you reach Saint Mary Lake, and a few good trails
lead to waterfalls along the lake. You can often spot wildlife along the road to the north
of the lake. Though we didn’t see the elk herd that often grazes in the meadows, we spotted
a pair of young grizzlies romping amid the wildflowers. Maybe that’s why we didn’t see any
elk. You’ll find that even if you don’t stop at all the viewpoints and trails, you still
run out of daylight before you run out of things to see and do. It could take days to
explore it all — except, you haven’t yet ventured into the Waterton Lakes part of the
park, accessed by way of the Chief Mountain Highway (which will deposit you at the Waterton
Park entrance at Lower Waterton Lake, a distance of 43 miles). Along the way, take the
12-mile detour into Many Glacier and explore the tree-trunk-pillar-supported Many Glacier
Hotel, take boat cruises and horse treks, hike to iceberg-filled lakes and creaking
glaciers (including Grinnell Glacier up close) and explore the many trails. Uh-huh —
you’ll need more than a day here, too.

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